The Big Question

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. – The 43-year-old man with no cartilage in his right knee and dueling scars along his spine walked into the room with neither a limp nor the gait of Quasimodo. To say Randy Johnson was chipper might stretch the truth a bit, for every word he utters about himself seems a Sisyphean endeavor, but he was trying.

Johnson knows he chose this path, delaying the cushy life of a multi-millionaire retiree for the taxing rehabilitation of a herniated disc in his back. It's taken him back to the Arizona Diamondbacks, with whom he won four of his five Cy Young awards, back 100 miles down Interstate 10 to their spring-training complex here, back for one last rebirth.

The glue factory has expected him for nearly a decade. The Seattle Mariners shipped him out nine years, 147 wins and 2,331 strikeouts ago. He should have won another Cy Young in 2004 after rebounding from a dreadful 2003 season. And now, after two years with the New York Yankees that were his career's equivalent to "Gigli" and "Ishtar," he can only hope his back and knees allow him to continue defying.

What Johnson chooses to defy, naturally, depends on the day. Some it is age, others logic. No matter Johnson's delusions on certain subjects – he spent a good five minutes Saturday calling out New York's media for, among other things, deeming him "surly," which is like him arguing that grass is not green – he is so self-aware and honest on others, like the burden of performing, that you'd swear he'd taken a sodium pentothal dart to the neck.

"I'm never going to satisfy people," Johnson said. "I don't think anyone in the game is going to strike out 300 again. And yet that's what people want me to do. I don't think too many people are going to dominate the way I did. Nobody's going to do that, let alone myself.

"I will continue to say I can, because that's my motivating factor, but as soon as I come into this room and say, 'Well, I can't do those things anymore,' then I would be giving up, and I wouldn't be as motivated. I once did them. The bar's set there, so that's what I strive to do."

The mystery of Randy Johnson really isn't a fifth-level Sudoku: No matter his accomplishment, he always needs something to challenge him.

Real. Fake. Whatever.

It explains how he convinces himself that he's "never going to satisfy people" even though, for most of his 19-year career, he has been baseball's greatest physical marvel, a 6-foot-10 athlete who somehow learned to untangle his arms and legs and unleash the greatest fastball-slider combination since Steve Carlton in his heyday.

And it also explains why he continued to pitch last season despite the crippling effects of his back injury: Johnson needed to show himself strength, misguided or not, for validation.

"It was going to be a no-win situation, especially where I was at," Johnson said. "If I didn't pitch, 'Well, see, we told you, he's got a bad back and he's old and all that.' And if I did pitch with a bad back and I pitched poorly, you know, what the hell's going on?"

Joseph Heller would be proud. Johnson knew that to extricate himself from New York would free him from so many existing burdens. Here he landed, on Saturday throwing 90 pitches from 150 feet, riding a stationary bike for 30 minutes, stretching his back – readying.

When the back is fit, expected to be the second week of April or so, Johnson will ease into the Diamondbacks' rotation as the likely No. 3 starter behind reigning Cy Young winner Brandon Webb and veteran Livan Hernandez.

Johnson, at the same time, will join a rather elite group of about a dozen starters in the last 25 years who have pitched past their 43rd birthdays. Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Jim Kaat, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry are mid-quadragenerians of note, and there's one more active one, Jamie Moyer, who must share some kind of elixir with Johnson from their days together in Seattle.

With at least 32 starts in each of the last six years, Moyer's health earned him a two-year contract extension. Johnson's two-year, $32 million deal, which lasts through the end of 2008, came in spite of an injury dossier that looks better suited for an offensive lineman.

"The one thing that fires me up is when I'm doing something I'm not supposed to be doing," Johnson said. "That kind of motivates me, too. Eventually, everybody will be right in what they've been saying about me: 'He's old and he can't do it anymore.' But I think if I went into the front office right now and said, 'Would you take 34 victories over the next two years of my contract?' they'd be pretty happy with that."

Always back and forth. Passive and aggressive. Johnson needs the action. He admitted he "could easily start considering retiring" if baseball did not so intoxicate him and fulfill his competitive jones.

The game brings out the best and the worst in Randy Johnson. Sometimes he's a grouch, others a charmer, never cloying. When Clemens' name was mentioned among successful 40-something pitchers, Johnson wondered, after the whole 80-percent-retired speech got Clemens back in the headlines this week, the difficulty of beginning the season in June.

"I could definitely pitch a half a season," Johnson said.

Only he wouldn't.

That would be too easy.

And it certainly wouldn't satisfy the most important person of all.

Himself.